(If you want, buy their previous rampages for $2 by clicking on the covers below.)
Wearing golden robes with bronze stars on the back, Cassidy and Lloyd leave their jeep a block away from the gold-trimmed tower. The sunlight bounces off the large structure, which is dotted with gargoyles stolen from other buildings. It is so bright that they have to keep their heads down and blink away the dots left in their vision. Using reflections in the store windows, they pick out more details of the tower that is supposedly essential to their enemy’s power and influence. Banners roll from the bottom of the penthouse to cover the next ten floors, all of the decorations depicting Johnathan Custer in various poses designed to make him look noble and strong. A balcony has been erected halfway down the building, a reflection in the opposite skyscraper showing a lush garden. It takes the pair a minute to realize that the people standing among the plants are statues, each one made to look like Elaine Custer.
Lloyd nudges Cassidy and nods to the bottom floor where a single guard stands in front of a locked revolving door. The man is wearing an earpiece and a black suit, which is cut to make him look gigantic. His tie runs down to his knees and whips in the wind, the guard doing nothing unless it flies into his scowling face. A pair of sunglasses are in his pocket and he repeatedly takes them out to clean, but never puts them on. Obviously suffering from boredom, the man grins wide when he spots the two robed-figures heading toward the building. Excited to have something to do, he puts out his hand and orders them to stop long before they come close enough to be a threat. Realizing his mistake, the guard clears his throat and beckons them forward, jerking out his hand when they are within reach.
“Today’s services have already started,” the guard declares in a gruff voice. Checking his watch, he shrugs and pulls out a green keycard with a hand-drawn picture of himself on it. “I can let you in after the opening sermon, but I need to make sure you’re both legit. We’ve had a lot of people try to sneak in and a few robes have gone missing. Right from the cleaners that we use too, which is a shame. Now, I only need to make sure you’re wearing the right clothes beneath the robes. Anybody can know the outer clothes of the Bronze Star Order, but only those inside know what lurks beneath. You first, sir.”
“Fine, but I’m only on my third day here,” Lloyd replies, opening his robe. The badly tailored suit makes his lean body appear lumpy and distorted, an effect made worse by a tie that goes down to his crotch. “I had some trouble with the cufflinks and one of them fell into the toilet. Is there any way you can let me off with a warning?”
“It’s the tie that I’m worried about,” the man answers, reaching out to make it reach Lloyd’s knees. Taking a step back, he nods his head and shakes the serial killer’s hand while practically yanking him off his feet. “Good thing that you got the welcoming ritual correct. Those who are in their first week have to get pulled. You work up to the position where you can show you’re stronger than others. Builds character and makes you respect your own power. At least that’s what the holy pamphlet says. Now, let’s make sure the young lady is wearing the proper first week vestments.”
Cassidy hesitates and pulls her robe tighter around her body, which causes the guard to reach for his gun. Knowing that she has no choice, the mercenary reveals the silver bikini and gladiator sandals that came with her robe. She sighs when he gestures for her to hike up the robe and turn in a circle to get checked for weapons. A grunt causes her to freeze and wonder if the flesh-colored paint covering her tattoo has been smeared, but he coughs to get her to finish the spin. Cheeks red from a combination of anger and embarrassment, she averts her eyes to make sure the man does not pick up on the fact that she wants to hurl him through the nearest window. Cassidy can tell that he is having his doubts about her, so she thinks of how Lloyd offered to wear the bikini until she can put on a smile. The image of the serial killer in the skimpy outfit is enough to make her giggle and build up the ability to flirt with the man. Her smile is short-lived as the guard nods his head and suddenly reaches out to grab her by the crotch.
“What are you doing?” he asks when Cassidy catches him by the wrist. Drawing his weapon, he aims it at the woman before clicking the safety off. “You know that all young women with certain levels of attractiveness are greeted this way during their first week. It is a way to toughen them up and . . . make them feel like part of the order? Look, I’m not really sure why this is a thing, but it is. Either accept it or be shot.”
Lloyd licks his lips and slinks up behind the guard like a hungry predator. “Hurt my friend and I’ll carve you into tiny pieces. I’m talking so small that a flea could swallow them whole. So, let us into the meeting before I-”
“I’ve got this under control,” Cassidy states while putting her forehead against the gun’s cool barrel. Her eyes remain locked on the man’s finger, which is starting to quiver against the trigger. “It isn’t that I forgot or refuse, but I’m just shy. Within the building or in private is one thing, but this is very public. I don’t know who could be looking at us from inside too. Could we do this somewhere in private?”
“The windows are tinted at this level, so nobody can see in or out,” the guard replies as he lowers his arm. Running his fingers through his hair, he tries to think of a solution while staring at the scantily clad mercenary. “Be a shame to kill someone who looks like you. If your friend is willing to watch the door, we can go into that alley and do this. Shouldn’t be more than a minute since I need to be thorough. Follow me and we’ll get you into the service as soon as possible. It’s on the first floor today, so you can sneak in pretty easily.”
Cassidy smiles until the guard turns around and heads for the alley, her face a mixture of disgust and hate. Refusing the machete that Lloyd offers her, the mercenary goes after the man and disappears around the corner. Alone on the street, the serial killer leans against the locked revolving door and waits for his partner to return. He whistles at the sound of a loud crash, the noise followed by shattering glass and what he assumes is a head getting repeatedly banged against a trashcan. A muted gunshot ends the struggle and Cassidy walks out a minute later, her robe still open and the keycard in her hand. Spots of blood are on her face, which Lloyd politely wipes off with the backside of his tie.
“I’m going to need a shower after that one,” Cassidy admits as she unlocks the door. Closing her robe, she hands the keycard to Lloyd since she has no pockets. “Good suggestion on taking some time to hide my guns in the robe. By the way, what was going on with that? I don’t even know what to call it. Who does that?”
“Apparently, a guy who is going to have his junk eaten by rats,” Lloyd replies, his bloodlust still threatening to emerge. Looking over the card, he tosses it over his shoulder as they enter the revolving door. “It wasn’t even his card. Belonged to a guy named Reuben, which sounds very familiar. I can do the legwork in here if you want to stay back and avoid getting grabbed down there. Can’t believe we have to worry about that. What kind of fucked up . . . Oh . . This kind of fucked up.”
The pair stop at the back of a large crowd of followers, those in their first week being the only ones to stand with their robes open. Everyone stares at a large statue of Johnathan Custer, the golden figure holding up the head of a lion in one hand and balancing an attractive woman on the other shoulder. There is a silver eagle dangling a few inches above the idol’s head, the animal’s expertly carved face looking more annoyed than fearsome. A one-star flag waves on the back wall, the wind coming from fans that routinely spout smoke and force a beleaguered engineer to do repairs before a fire breaks out. Portraits of the Custer family line the walls and each one hangs over a golden sink that has been filled with holy water. A box next to the picture of Elaine has a sign asking for donations, a short list stating that only coins, paper money, and pledges of undying loyalty are accepted.
As Cassidy and Lloyd slowly move to the front of the mob, they get a clear view of the podium that is flanked by a collection of plastic flowers. Having finished her sermon, the red-haired woman standing on the stage is quietly directing her agents, who are in the crowd to find those that wish to ask for help. While waiting, she calmly adjusts her blue and white robe, which has a golden belt that makes the garment look more like a dress. An unbreakable smile is on her face, even when one of the patches of fake roses topples over because of a redirected fan. The brief gale sends her hair in every direction, the disheveled appearance causing a man in the front to chuckle. With a snap of her fingers, the woman gets two of her guards to grab the follower and drag him to an elevator. She hurries to fix her hair while three people are brought onto the stage and handed empty beer steins.
“I, Josephina Sweet, will now bestow alternatives to your sins,” the woman says while struggling with her microphone. Yanking the entire device off the podium, she continues smiling even when she sees that someone has glued it to the small stand. “Looks like we have a comedian with us. Well, I assure you that a sense of humor won’t get you very far here. The Custer Church is the core of his power and the key to repairing this country. Without all of you to fight in his name, Johnathan Custer would fail. So, everything that we accomplish is more because of you than us. We are like Moses who brought the Christians to Egypt, but was not allowed to enter the land for seven days. Now, what do the three chosen ones have to ask forgiveness for? Remember that Johnathan Custer’s strength is why you can voice your sins and not be punished. There is nobody stronger than him, as you can tell by the amount of progress he has made in such a short amount of time.”
“I cheated on my wife and she caught us together,” a young man blurts out as his beer stein is filled.
“That’s just an alternate threesome,” Josephina replies without hesitation. Sensing that the next follower is nervous, she takes the girl by the hands and smiles. “Nobody will openly judge you here. Purify yourself, so that you can absorb some of Johnathan Custer’s strength and fight to unite our country. No sin is too small for us to hear.”
The girl takes a deep breath and holds out her glass for the frothy alcohol. “I teased my older sister and she told our parents, so I followed the pamphlet and sold her to some slavers when our parents were out getting food. They still found out though. I got the slavers to come back for my parents to avoid getting grounded.”
“Oh, that’s nothing more than alternative human resourcing. Last one. What do you need forgiveness for, sir?”
“I stole all the dinosaur bones from the museum and buried them in Central Park. The voices told me that this would bring them back to life.”
“That’s what we call alternative archaeology and future generations thank you for it.”
The three followers are escorted into the crowd by two large guards while Josephina goes back to the podium. She holds up her hands to stop the applause and cheering, her head down in an attempt to appear humble. Turning around, she blows a kiss to Johnathan Custer’s statue and smiles even wider when the golden hue twinkles in response. Winking to the scowling engineer in the corner, she is about to face the followers again when she sees Grymer standing behind a pillar. Josephina shakes her head at his silent request for her to come over, the gesture hidden by making it look like her hair has tickled the back of her neck. Ignoring the man, who is wearing torn shorts and a soiled dress shirt, the cult leader tries to get back to her sermon. She pauses when Grymer begins to climb onto the stage, his appearance a possible threat to her position in the church.
“We have a special guest for us today,” Josephina declares, covering the surprise and keeping control of the situation. She hits a button on her podium and uses a joystick to keep a bright spotlight on the portly man. “Grymer has come to give us an update on our progress. He might even have a message directly from Johnathan Custer. As you know, he is one of the great masterminds behind our alternative election. We wouldn’t have made it far without his wisdom and guidance. Not that Elaine Custer and myself are slouches, but Grymer is has traveled millions of miles to get-”
Josephina stops talking when Cassidy and Lloyd barge onto the stage and tackling Grymer to the ground. She is about to call for her guards when she sees that those closest to the stage are dead on the floor. The followers are already whispering in confusion, their fragile faith beginning to crack at the sight of the severe beating. Her own dislike of Grymer causes Josephina to hesitate, which she hides by pretending to look for help. Waving to the guards on the far side of the room, the woman tries to get near the fight and yell for the pair to get off the struggling advisor. She picks up a plastic sunflower and tries bopping Lloyd on the head, but the decoration breaks in her hands.
“This will do nicely,” the serial killer says while taking the jagged stem from Josephina. He stabs Grymer in the stomach and yanks it back out before handing it back. “I was wrong. It didn’t do much. Hold onto this for a minute. Believe it or not, that’s a human liver and not cooked chopped meat. Betting you could get drunk off that thing.”
“What are you doing to him?” Josephina asks as she stares at the organ in her hands.
“Oh . . . an alternative massage.”
“Guards! Grab these two and take them to the judgement roof!”
“Wait, do you have two roofs here or do you just call the one something different whenever you need to use it?”
“Your own rage has betrayed you, spy. Is killing this man worth breaking your cover?”
Cassidy stops stomping on Grymer’s head and grins as she replies, “Totally. Okay, I think we’ve broken everything in him that’s worth breaking. Let’s get whatever ridiculousness is next over with.”